Could some HR practices be perpetuating inequalities?
A blog from Kiddy & Partners' Research and Impact Director Dr Zara Whysall about the potential HR has to stop perpetuating inequalities.
The shocking death of George Floyd and the broader Black Lives Matter movement has drawn much needed attention to the fact that racism is alive and (un)well. Over recent weeks I’ve listened wide-eyed, saddened and, frankly, ashamed to be a white person as black friends and colleagues reeled off numerous examples of racism they’d been subjected to, and not in the distant past but here, and now. I realised that, like Covid-19, if it’s not happening to you, it’s easy to assume things are getting better. And maybe in some areas it is, but that’s not enough. Many people are still suffering its awful effects, and like the viral pandemic, each and every one of us is critical to eradicating it.
Diversity and Inclusion has been on the HR agenda for many years, with many organisations now offering training to raise managers’ and employees’ awareness of both implicit and explicit discrimination, cognitive biases, and the importance of diversity. But with ethnicity pay gap reporting likely to become mandatory within the next year or two, it’s essential that we go beyond this. When selecting and developing leaders, we should be looking for and nurturing inclusive behaviours (keep an eye out for the forthcoming Kiddy & Partners article series on inclusive leadership). It’s also HR’s responsibility to ensure that the processes for selection and promotion within their organisations are robust, objective and avoid bias. Key questions all HR practitioners should be asking are: Are we sure that our selection and promotion practices aren’t perpetuating inequalities? What changes do we need to make to ensure our selection and promotion practices promote diversity, inclusion and equality?
I’ve previously summarised the research evidence regarding how cognitive biases in recruitment, selection, and promotion can lead to subconscious discrimination. But there’s another very fundamental flaw that often gets overlooked in practice when it comes to making key personnel decisions: Often, these decisions are made on the basis of evidence of past performance – CVs, references, even competency-based interviews which ask participants to recall examples from their previous experience. If you acknowledge that inequality still exists, you recognise that the past is likely to have provided fewer opportunities for individuals in minority groups to show what they’re really capable of. At once, it becomes clear how selecting on this basis puts you at risk of perpetuating inequalities.
How do we address this?
By focusing on potential this cycle can be broken. Selection and promotion decisions need to shift from an emphasis on what somebody has achieved in the past to what they’re capable of in future. In practice, judgements of an individual’s potential are often conflated with assessments of current or past performance; it’s assumed that great performance in a current role will automatically lead to success in a future role. Perhaps the biggest problem of all is that a large proportion of organisations still rely on line managers to assess an employee’s potential. Naturally, managers find it difficult to distinguish between performance and potential. This is problematic because current performance doesn’t necessarily predict success in future roles, particularly when the new role involves a step-change, for instance from technical or functional specialist to a managerial or leadership role. As a result, the high potential pool ends up comprising of current high performers, possibly overlooking those with skills to lead your business in the future but who aren’t flourishing in their current role or context. But this doesn’t just relate to the ‘HiPo pool’, it relates to the potential every individual has to improve their capability and performance.
To avoid perpetuating past inequalities and to reduce bias, selection and promotion decisions should be based on an independent assessment of an individual’s capability and, most importantly, their potential. Business Psychologists’ training in assessment method is rigorous in relation to reducing bias, avoiding adverse impact – the negative impact of employment (and promotion) practices that appear neutral but have a discriminatory effect on a protected group, and enhancing reliability and validity. Kiddy’s Business Psychologists use a range of assessment methods, but critically in terms of assessing potential, a business simulation. Benchmarked simulations create a learning and assessment environment that replicates the leadership challenges that individuals are likely to experience in future, in your business. These stretch-level simulations allow you to create the challenges of a future role, and in doing so, provide an indication of an individual’s future capacity, avoiding conflation with current job performance.
We’ve shared our thinking with our colleagues at Gateley Legal, and Head of Employment Chris Thompson has observed “Time and again we see problems arising out of line managers being ill-equipped to drive forward the diversity agenda. Poor, ineffective appraisal systems can be a factor with neither employees nor line managers properly invested at every level within a business. This breeds resentment and cynics. Another factor is a basic lack of understanding of the equality legislation and terminology which leads to a head down and avoid mentality. Kiddy’s ideas are exciting and offer employers a route to a real acceleration in achieving true equality of opportunity for employees from all backgrounds”.
If we’re to break the cycle of inequality and lack of opportunity as a result of implicit bias, organisations must shift towards objective, data-driven assessment processes that are designed to assess the cognitive, behavioural, and social qualities identified as determinants of future success in your business.